(Designing) themes for everyone

Theme designers at Automatic have a very important job — design themes, that will (potentially) be used by millions of people. But more importantly, these themes will represent our customers, or their businesses, to the world. This is a very exciting, and intimidating task. But how do you create a theme for millions, you ask? The simple answer is – you don’t.

“What will your site be about?”

The signup process for starts out with a few questions about the topic and the goal for the site . Analysing the answers helps us determine the general areas we should be focusing on, like fashion, or education. While this is valuable information, it’s hardly enough for a themer to go on. Does education mean schools, or online courses, or something else entirely?

Search for and tell stories about people, not just data.

The signup data provides us with a starting point, but it’s pretty vague. To fill in the gaps, we started building out stories of actual people and businesses, and design themes for them specifically. At a recent meetup we tried out the process, that included a series of creative exercises:

  • getting inspired – instead of looking for the inspiration on the Internet, we headed out and visited museums, book stores, and shops, to find a physical inspiration object.
  • building a mood board – we took our physical objects and built virtual mood boards around them.
  • to get the creative juices flowing we did a 6-8-5 exercise, aimed at generating ideas.
  • building a business by answering a series of detailed questions (Who are they? What do they sell? Where are they located? How many employees? etc.), which we further developed with the product pinocchio exercise, that explored our businesses values, goals, and what makes them unique.

Designing with a specific business in mind proved to be very powerful. The process of creating a story, complete with values, struggles, and goals, helped us build empathy, and better understanding for our customers’ experiences. This approach was also great for fostering creativity, and outside-the-box thinking. While our themes need to be flexible, starting from a specific customer story enabled us to explore design ideas we would otherwise reject. It freed us from thinking about technical details, and forced us to think, about the bigger picture, and how our work helps our customers to solve their problems.

Photo by John Moeses Bauan on Unsplash


By Ola Bodera

Theme Wrangler, photographer, food blogger, and science-fiction fun.